Dr Dave Sloggett explores the implications for the UK Emergency Services of a decision by NATO to act against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Slowly but surely the language emerging from the discussions before the NATO summit in Newport and in its immediate aftermath show a consensus for military action against the militants that have established the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Their actions have redefined the word extremism. Even Al Qaeda has disowned the group lead by its so-called emir Al-Baghdadi.
In the face of such extremism it is right for western countries to consider military action. As they do however they must bear in mind the potential implications such a step has for national security and specifically the emergency services. The recent decision to raise the threat level to the setting of substantial is indicative of the government recognising that any move towards greater involvement in Syria and Iraq is bound to have consequences on the home front.
Towards the end of last year at the Royal United Services Institute the head of the Security Service Andrew Parker spoke of the ‘British public having unrealistic expectations of his service’. His point is that in such a complicated and multi-faceted security situation, where threats are constantly wax and wane faster than lunar cycles, the issue of dynamic resource allocation in his service means that at some point a team or individual planning an attack in the United Kingdom may be able to succeed.
If revelations from recent court cases that have seen terrorists convicted are anything to go by their ambition to kill and maim is undiminished. If one of these groups had succeeded in carrying out their plans the list of dead and injured would have easily surpassed the figures from the attack in London on 7 July 2005. Such an attack would provide a severe examination of the resilience of the regional and national capabilities of the emergency services.
The attack on the Boston marathon provides a recent and chilling example of what can be achieved by just two individuals. Their knowledge and experience with explosives was initially very limited. People returning from Syria or Iraq would be streets ahead of the Boston attackers in their understanding of the potential of Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) or Improvised Chemical Weapons (ICW) to create a mass casualty event. What they could unleash on the United Kingdom with relatively small resources would create a severe test of our national resilience.
While this kind of scenario is one that has been openly discussed in the media and in government for many months it is not difficult to imagine how any military intervention may spur others to become involved in terrorism. These individuals would not necessarily have travelled overseas. What they lack in specific expertise with explosives they would make up using the Internet as their readily-available source of information on how to create the tools of terrorism.
This creates a multi-dimensional problem which can be visualised as a matrix of two rows and columns. Along one axis the two labels are lone wolf or organised group. Along the other is a division between those that have remained in the United Kingdom and those that have travelled overseas. Each of the four sub-divisions this analysis creates has its own subtle variances in terms of the way the threat presents itself in the United Kingdom.
Arguably with some of those that have travelled to Syria and Iraq deciding to die in combat some aspects of the threat are diminished. Those whose passports have been removed also will find it harder to return. These are sensible measures that to some extent can contain the overall threat.
But the nature of that threat will change significantly if the government decides to become directly involved in military operations against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. This is the point where the threat from those that have not travelled overseas will grow. Some of these will suddenly emerge on the threat landscape with little warning of their transition to becoming directly involved in terrorism. These are the people Andrew Parker had in mind when he suggested the public has expectations that his service, irrespective of their desire to be professionals, can realistically achieve in such a complicated situation.
As ever the issue for the emergency services is that at a time of austerity and continued discussions about further cuts to their capabilities their ability to provide the national insurance policy expected by the public is being increasingly tested. Local capabilities in all aspects of the emergency services would be quickly overwhelmed by a well organised and carefully planned attack. Increasingly it is true that any significant attack by either a lone wolf or a group would require a regional or in the worst cases national response.
Such responses however carry an overhead. It takes time to mobilise units across police force, ambulance and fire services boundaries. In the immediate aftermath of a large-scale terrorist attack that is the one precious commodity that many of the victims simply will not have.
This is the situation the government and in Parliament have to ponder very carefully before any decision is taken to commit military forces into the fight against the extremists of the Islamic State. Whilst any decision may be morally correct it does need to be seen through several lenses. One of those is the national security implications. Arguably this is the one that most affects the general public. They are unlikely to be very forgiving of a government that tries to deliver a resilient national infrastructure on a shoestring.
So as the consensus emerges for taking direct military action against the extremists of the Islamic State emerges perhaps it is possible to suggest that another equally important set of collective political thinking also appears; one that reduces the speed with which the emergency services have to cut their budget. This will give them time to exercise and test their regional and national resilience posture to deal with the aftermath of a major terrorist event.
If they are not given that breathing space then the outcomes of any major terrorist attack are less predictable despite what will be their valiant efforts on the day. What may have started as a military intervention to disrupt and prevent the spread of the cancer of the Islamic State may end up seeing people die on the streets of the United Kingdom.